Jun 12 2018

Anti-GMO Lying

The anti-GMO site, Independent Science News, declares in a June 3rd headline: “GMO Golden Rice Offers No Nutritional Benefits Says FDA.” The problem with that headline is that it’s a lie. The FDA was forced to write a response stating that the claim is “misleading.”

Yeah – it’s deliberately misleading by distorting the facts and presenting them out of context so that they lead to a conclusion which is untrue. That is a form of lying.

Often I am asked how to sort science from fiction when there are many sides all loudly proclaiming opposing claims and citing their own evidence. (Gratuitous plug – for a thorough answer to this question, you can preorder my upcoming book.) One good way is to take any specific argument and follow the evidence as far as you can. Try to get back to primary sources, and see what they actually say. Follow the arguments back and forth, and see which side tends to have the final word.

Typically the side with the weaker position, or the one that is more ideological and less science-based, will display common characteristic behaviors. They will misrepresent primary sources – say, by citing a study to support a claim, when it doesn’t, or blatantly misrepresenting what the study shows. They will also cherry pick evidence, ignoring solid evidence that seems to contradict their position. When firmly challenged on one point, they may simply shift over to a separate point, without ever responding to or acknowledging the challenge. And – they will lie.

These behaviors exist along a spectrum, not as a dichotomy, so often both sides may engage to some extent in them, but often there is a clear asymmetry. Also, when you confront one side with such behavior, how do they respond. Do they acknowledge the error and correct, or do they simply persist in the behavior?

It takes a little work (and maybe a lot of work, depending on how complex the claim is), but this process can usually sort out which side has the better position.

I have been writing about anti-GMO pseudoscience for a few years now, and have documented the many lies, myths, and propaganda that the anti-GMO crowd typically propagates. The anti-GMO campaign is a house of cards that collapses in the slightest breeze. There are many great examples of how counter-reality their narrative is, but my favorite is perhaps the story of golden rice.

In a nutshell, the anti-GMO narrative is this: crops developed with GM technology have inherent an unknown risks to both health and the environment, they are produced and marketed solely for corporate greed, and abetted by corrupt government agencies. The science behind them is all “bought and paid for” by Big Ag, but there are a few mavericks who have exposed the real danger. They also represent a unique commercial threat to farmers and the world, by patenting the “seeds of life” allowing a few companies to eventually control the world’s food production. When that happens, then we will be living in an agricultural dystopia.

Every piece of that narrative is wrong, or at least wildly misleading. Just read the articles linked to above for many details. The story of golden rice itself contradicts many of the pillars of the anti-GMO narrative.

Golden rice is genetically modified to have increased level of beta-carotine, a precursor of Vitamin A. The purpose of this modification is to combat Vitamin A deficiency in developing countries – countries that both lack a convenient supply of foods with sufficient Vitamin A, and rely heavily on rice as a staple crop. The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that there are about 800,000 deaths, and an additional 250,00 to 500,000 cases of blindness in children, each year as a result of Vitamin A deficiency. This is a serious health problem mostly affecting poor children.

Further, golden rice was developed by an international non-profit consortium. The science is all open-source and transparent, and the results are patent-free (they do have to license some basic patents from existing companies). So basically – golden rice is not developed for corporate greed, no patented, and not a method of controlling food production. The technology will be made freely available to farmers who want to grow it. It is a purely humanitarian project designed to improve the life of poor children in the developing world.

So the anti-GMO crowd resorts to other squirrely tactics, like suggesting that it is not necessary – tell that to the millions of blind children. Perhaps their current favorite tactic is to claim that golden rice does not work, or has not been proven safe. That brings us to the current lie.

GR2, the current form of golden rice, has recently been approved by the FDA in the US, as well as in Canada and New Zealand. These approvals are symbolic – golden rice will never be grown and marketed in these countries. But FDA approval is meaningful, and will facilitate the approval and use of GR2 in the countries in which it was intended to be used.

The FDA has specific rules for labeling of approved food products. In order to claim that a food is fortified with a specific vitamin, it has to include a specific amount based on typical American consumption. But the typical southeast Asian eats 25 times the rice of the typical American. So the amount of beta-carotene in the golden rice is not sufficient, given levels of consumption, to be significant for an average American, but is significant for a child growing up in southeast Asia with Vitamin A deficiency. In their rebuttal letter, the FDA writes:

It is unfortunate that the statement you reference in our letter responding to BNF 158 has been misconstrued to suggest that there would be no value of the pro-vitamin A in golden rice for its use in the countries where it is intended for distribution.

Our statement applies only to labeling considerations in the United States, in that golden rice contains insufficient pro-vitamin A to warrant differential labeling for nutrient content based on the low levels of rice consumption in the U.S. Requirements for nutrient content claims on labels in the United States take two factors into account, the amount of the nutrient needed as well as it’s concentration in the food and the typical or average level of that food consumed in the U.S. For the rice to be labeled in the United States with a claim containing provitamin A, our regulations stipulate that the food must contain 10-19 percent of the RDI or DRV for the substance per reference amount customarily consumed (essentially a measure of consumption).

Additionally, U.S. consumers eat rice at very low levels compared to consumers in the specific Asian countries with vitamin A deficiency for which golden rice was developed. IRRI reports that consumption of rice by children in Bangladesh is 12.5 g/kg body weight/day, compared to about 0.5 g/kg bw/d for U.S. consumers). Rice is the major staple in those countries and levels of rice consumption are many-fold higher than they are in the U.S. While a U.S Consumer would be unlikely to eat enough of the rice to achieve that value (10-19 % of the NDI or RDA), that does not mean that the level of consumption of golden rice in the targeted countries would be insufficient to accomplish the intended effect of supplementing their very low consumption of vitamin A-containing foods. Consuming rice containing the levels of pro-vitamin A in GR2E rice as a staple of the diet could have a significant public health impact in populations that suffer from vitamin A deficiency.

So Independent Science News took the FDA statement grossly out of context in order to imply that GR2E would not be beneficial to children in the target countries, which is simply not the case. In other words – they lied.

It is also easy to see how the anti-GMO narrative is also not even internally consistent. If the FDA were bought and paid for (as claimed) why would they pedantically apply their own rules to the approval of golden rice, giving a propaganda point to the anti-GMO crowd?

In any case – it is good to see golden rice moving forward, despite opposition. It is my sincere hope that golden rice will become an effective tool for preventing death and blindness in developing countries. The anti-GMO crowd, however, act as if they are afraid of this outcome. They act as if they would prefer for millions of children to die and go blind over the next few decades rather than to allow a GMO to succeed.

It shows the places you can get to when you are operating under an extreme ideological narrative.

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